It took the matchmaking skills of Pierre Audi at De Nederlandse Oper to bring Simon McBurney and Mikhail Bulgakov together, even though on paper the English director and Soviet satirist seem made for each other. But McBurney rarely dances to other people’s tunes, and he only signed up to the project once his ear had been beguiled by siren sounds from Alexander Raskatov’s score.
The siren of myth was a woman’s head on a bird’s body; Bulgakov gives us a bloke with a dog’s heart (or more accurately a dog, Sharik, with human testicles and pituitary gland) and beguiling it is not. This manmade man-mutt represents, with no great subtlety, Bulgakov’s view of a downtrodden Russian proletariat assuming power after the revolution, only to destroy the promised land through its own uncouth baseness. For Sharik, read Stalin. No wonder the book was banned in Russia for half a century.
Simon McBurney gives A Dog’s Heart the full Complicite treatment. The creative blend of movement and video evokes recent work on Shun-kin and A Disappearing Number, while the Kafka-tinged stage world (the tale’s a sepia negative of Metamorphosis) harks back to The Street of Crocodiles. There is also a hefty dose of the knockabout physical comedy that used to be a Complicite staple before their shift into portentous subject matter. Most significantly of all, although this is McBurney’s first foray into opera it comes in the wake of several music-dominated shows such as The Noise of Time, his Shostakovich piece with the Emerson String Quartet. For once, no one can accuse English National Opera of taking a punt on a novice.
Raskatov’s score is inventive, colourful and deft. For all its echoes of Kancheli, Schnittke and Messiaen, the music has a confident wit that’s all of a piece with the story’s themes and the director’s style. Garry Walker, whose ENO Orchestra plays with jazz-band precision, conducts a richly inflected reading that brims with gusto.
Almost all the performers are new to the piece since its Dutch première earlier this year (as is Martin Pickard’s roguish translation). Steven Page exudes aristocratic urbanity as the professor who creates the Frankenstalin monster. Leigh Melrose matches his crackpot certainties as his assistant, Bormenthal, while the rubber-limbed and elastic-voiced Nancy Allen Lundy steals moment after moment as Zina, the zany maid.
Peter Hoare turns in the performance of the night as he squeals his way from scream to growl in a masterclass of grotesque acting, singing and (often literal) scenery-chewing. He is Sharikov the man. It takes six people to portray his canine self: four Blind Summit puppeteers manipulate the dog, while Andrew Watts lends his strong, sweet counter-tenor voice to the lyrical music of the ‘nice’ Sharik and Elena Vassilieva shrieks through a distorting megaphone to portray his ugly side. Elsewhere, cruel things are done to fat cats (geddit?), blood flows in rivers and Michael Levine’s hydraulic set holds coups de théâtre galore.
A Dog’s Heart suffers from Bulgakov’s tendency to overegg the varenyky, and despite what McBurney calls ‘dramaturgy’ to the libretto of Cesare Mazzonis (which I imagine means invasive surgery on a par with the Professor’s work on Sharik’s bits) there are moments in each act where the momentum falters. These soon pass, though, and an operatic triumph calls time on ENO’s parade of dogs' dinners. This one is the cat’s pyjamas.